Nadia Owusu, the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award, is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. Simon & Schuster will publish her first book, “Aftershocks,” in 2020.
In her essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (1984), Toni Morrison described the characteristics of Black literature. Black literature, she wrote, has an oral quality. It can equally be enjoyed silently and aloud. There is an expectation of participation, of response — from the chorus of community in which the story’s characters are grounded, and from the reader. There is recognition of multiple ways of knowing, earthly and unearthly. And, always, ancestors loom large. “These ancestors,” Morrison stated, “are not just parents, they are sort of timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom.”
Morrison, to me, has long been a sort of mother; not an earthly mother, to be sure. I never met her, never saw her in person. But my earthly mother left when I was 2 years old. And, although my father did not shy away from talking to me about difficult things, there were conversations I was too afraid, or embarrassed, to have with him. For those conversations, from a young age, I turned to books. In Morrison’s novels, I found instruction, protection, a certain kind of wisdom.
My father’s job with the United Nations meant that, by the time I was 14, I had lived in six countries on three continents. At my middle schools in England and Italy, I was one of very few Black students. In Italy, there was a group of girls who called me dirty and ugly every chance they got: Sporca negra. Brutta. There was a librarian who looked disgusted every time she had to hand me a book. Once, she accused me of going into her office and using the phone without permission. Someone, she insisted, had seen me.
“You have no right to touch things that aren’t yours,” she said. “People like you are always touching things that aren’t yours.”
To be unwelcome in the library was more than I could bear. As I tearfully defended myself, the witness — a teacher — walked by. She stopped to explain that it had been another Nadia she had seen using the phone in the office. Nadia is quite a common name in Italy. My accuser did not apologize.
By a stroke of luck, it was during that time that I found Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” on my father’s bookshelf. In it, Pecola Breedlove, because of her dark skin, is deemed ugly by other children, and even by her mother. She longs for blue eyes, believing they will make her lovable. Pecola’s story helped me identify the feelings of self-hatred that were taking root in me; helped me yank them out.
Later, in England, when I was witness to another Black girl’s bullying, when I turned away from her pain in order to avoid being targeted again myself, I could feel “The Bluest Eye” judging me from the bookshelf, holding me to account, demanding that I hold myself to account.
In “Song of Solomon,” Pilate Dead’s mother dies while Pilate is still in her womb. Pilate fights her own way into the world. My father, I believe, found it painful to talk about my mother. To spare him that pain, I rarely acknowledged her absence, but this did not mean that I did not feel it. It felt like a kind of homelessness, made more palpable by the fact that, just as I was disconnected from my first home — from my mother — I was also disconnected from land. There was no place I could call my own without complication. My father was Ghanaian. I had never lived in Ghana. My mother was Armenian American. I did not know her. I grew up, like Pilate, a wanderer. I found comfort in her story, in seeing my experience reflected. And she charted a way forward that would allow me to embrace self-possession without abnegating the hope of reconnection. Pilate gave me permission to long for people and homes I barely remembered. Eventually, with a little magic, she found her homeland.
A month before my fourteenth birthday, my father died. More than ever before, I felt alone in the world. In the West, we are taught that the nuclear family is the most important unit to which we belong. Despite the truth of my experience — I was raised by my father, yes, but also by my stepmother, by many aunties and uncles, my grandparents, by neighbors, friends and nannies — I had internalized that narrative. Morrison, in so many ways, pushed back against it. In novels like “Beloved” and “Sula,” parents don’t raise children on their own, people don’t save themselves. Communities raise children. People save each other. They also fail each other, betray each other, break each other’s hearts. This is what Morrison meant by a chorus. The chorus does not always sing in unison. There is disagreement and discord. The Black communities in her novels are not unlike the Black communities that stepped in to raise me, to save me.
They are flawed, complicated, vital. Reading and rereading Morrison helped me to see my story not just as a sad tale of abandonment and loss, but also as a story about love, extending beyond borders — familial and geographic. That kind of love, too, is central to Black literature, to Black life across the diaspora.
When I was a little girl, my father told me bedtime stories. Sometimes, from memory, he told me Anansi the Spider tales, tales that are part of an ancient West African oral storytelling tradition. Sometimes, he told me about stories in the news, stories that were unfolding around, beautiful and ugly. In his storytelling, my father, like Morrison, did not hide difficult truths from me — about the world, about people. Often, there was chaos. There was a chorus. There were multiple truths at once. There were unanswered questions. Last month, scared and saddened by the state of the world, I longed to return to the nights of bedtime stories, to being guided in my nightly reckoning by someone wiser. I have no recordings of my father’s voice. I bought the audiobook version of “Sula.” To Morrison’s voice, for many nights in a row, I drifted into dreaming.
Morrison was an elder. She wrote, emphatically, for and about Black people. In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” she makes clear she wrote politically: “If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything.” In writing about Black people, about me, she wrote about everything.
In Ghana, when a person dies and becomes an ancestor, she is believed to watch over the living, to continue to show us how to live, to hold us to account. I will forever be reading Morrison’s wisdom. I will forever be listening.
Editor’s Note: Owusu chooses to capitalize Black because she sees it as an important way to acknowledge Black people as a diaspora cultural and ethnic group.